From the capital of jazz to home of the Chiefs to having the highest waterslide in the world, Kansas City is famous for many things. But most of all, KCMO is known for its barbecue scene. Here are five Kansas BBQ experiences you can’t miss.
To say we were excited about being in Kansas City is an understatement. We’d been talking with our awesome friends Melissa and Peter for ages about coming here.
Melissa – a KCMO local – now lives with Peter in San Francisco and we’ve often visited them there, exploring the many bars and cool spots of SF.
But we were thrilled at being able to see where Melissa grew up, meet her friends and fam, and see the sights the City of Fountains.
Why ‘City of Fountains’? Kansas City is home to 200 of them.
And that’s not the city’s only nickname. It’s also known as Paris of the Plains, Cowtown and of course KCMO, which makes the important distinction between Kansas City, KA and Kansas City, Missouri by the way.
But the nickname we’re most interested in is this one:
Kansas City – BBQ Capital of the World
Many cities in the States claim they’re the barbecue capital – Kansas City’s eastern Missouri neighbour St Louis for one. So what makes KCMO different to the rest?
In a word: sauce.
Kansas does what you might call a wet barbecue. The meat is important of course, but it plays second sax to the sauce. And each barbecue house has its own proprietary blend.
In St Louis by the way, they have a drier style, focusing on the rub and smoke on the meat.
Our hearts are with Kansas barbecue and we’re all about the sauce now. Here’s our pick of five places not to miss.
By the way, if you don’t know what ‘burnt ends’ are, read this first or everything you’re about to read will sound weird.
The newest of the barbecue places in the city, Q39 has shot to notoriety thanks to its beautifully worked branding and fame in national pit smoker and barbecue competitions. You can check out their array of trophies and awards on display.
Inside, Q39 its barn-like open space is run more like a modern restaurant than the cafeteria style of most traditional BBQ spots in KC. Rather than ordering and collecting your food at the counter, you’re seated with menus and servers come to you with table service.
However, there are nods to the old school with an open kitchen, lots of pictures on the walls and a caddy of sauces on every table.
The food at Q39 is excellent and comes more elegantly presented than other places. The brisket, which is served sliced into long thick strips is tender and the burnt ends are delicious. As for the ribs, they’re juicy but not fall-off-the-bone tender as promised.
This is all moot though as the sauces they make here are excellent. Spicy, herbaceous and a good hit of vinegar.
Good for newbies or where you could take your date for a BBQ.
A real institution in Kansas City and a successful chain in the city too, Jack Stack has all the feels of an old-school American steak restaurant.
There’s even a bronzed cow statue outside.
Inside, booths are the call of the day and cheery servers come to take your order at your table. This was our first experience of KCMOBBQ and what a great way to get things started. Soon enough, we’d filled our table with delicious food and tucked in merrily.
Christina went in straight for the burnt ends, which were excellent, and my baby back ribs went down a treat. My spare ribs were a bit chewy though. The sauces here are excellent, though I found it hard to pick the really spicy one out of the selection.
The real take-home from Jack Stack though was more what came with the meat. This place does the best sides in the state for sure. The beans are sweet and are mixed with the sauce, the mac n cheese is great but the cheesy corn is mind-blowing.
Jack Stack used to have the recipe for its cheesy corn on its website for a while, but not anymore. Probably just as well for my heart’s sake!
Most unexpected was the dessert. Although we were stuffed to gills, our server managed to convince us to try the carrot cake. Christina, who isn’t a fan of cake anyway, was sceptical, but when it came, it took all four of us by surprise.
A solid option for a fancy dinner with family and good friends.
Visiting Gates Bar-B-Q is like stepping back in time – in a good way! Filled with memorabilia from the cast iron hobby horse you can ride for a quarter to the old Gates signs from when its founder George Gates opened Gates Ol’ Kentucky in 1946.
Ordering at the counter from the aggressively friendly kitchen – they shout ‘Hi, may I help you?’ in a very forceful manner – you get to choose from a range of options that are bewildering to the first-timer.
As first-timers, we turned to the guy fidgeting to get his order behind us and asked him. Straight away, he told us he was getting a whole rack “because they’re the best” he explained. They’re also good value at $25 a piece. And you get to choose your rack too. If you’re brave and hungry enough.
We were neither and went for burnt ends and sides of beans and pickles. I think we chose very wisely.
Served in a ‘hoggie’ – a pillowy soft giant hotdog bun – the generous portion of burnt ends were tender and fragmented, and smothered in the best sauce we’d tasted. This was serious.
As for the beans, they were sweet but not too much, and the pickles were thick-sliced and delicious. But the sauce… I fell in love with the extra hot sauce and bought a bottle to take home.
At the door, we discovered a complete lack of wifi to order an Uber home and ended up waiting for ages for a taxi to come.
In the meantime, the guy on the door, who had been working here for decades, told us the owner and George’s son Ollie Gates was somewhere in the warren of rooms. He was having dinner with his daughter and watching the game.
He kindly took us to meet this venerable gentleman, who left his meal, his daughter and the game to have a photo and a quick chat with us. We were very impressed.
My favourite place in Kansas for BBQ – sorry Bar-B-Q. The best sauce we had and best burnt ends too. Choose your Gates Bar-B-Q location carefully. Each one has a different vibe. We went to the Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard venue.
A way out of town and on the Kansas State side of the city, Jones Bar-B-Q has seen a lot of changes happen recently. The focal point of the TV show Queer Eye, which is based in KCMO, the two sisters who run the joint have turned this place around.
Deborah ‘Shorty’ and Mary ‘Little’ Jones took the pit over from their father and still mix their sauces and barbecue their meat every day.
But the little shed they cook from just off the highway now has a garden with seating, they have proper signage and their sauce, which you can buy (we did!) comes in a fancy glass bottle.
As for the food, the meat is well-smoked and tender. Our burnt ends and beef slice came with two sides. The beans here are excellent and come full of chopped burnt ends too. The slaw is also worth ordering.
Jones Bar-B-Q has a lovely local feel to it. One of the sisters, Shorty, was in the kitchen when we were there and enjoyed Christina’s Aussie accent. In the garden, one of their friends was busy selling her homemade 7-Up pound cake and bantering with customers. It was a lot of fun.
A great experience with the bonus of delicious food. Come here early though as they often sell out of meat. Remember to grab a $1 beer with lunch too!
A place with real history, Arthur Bryant’s is considered by many to be the most famous barbecue diner in the whole country.
It’s been here for ages and you wonder as you walk in how much things have changed. Our guess is: not much.
Old pictures virtually cover every wall of how things used to be, though the photo of Woodrow Bacon, who’s been working here for over 60 years reinforces how little Bryant’s has changed.
It’s got such a local vibe, its edges have a bit of roughness to them, but the food speaks for itself. That and seeing a cop park up and stride in. The floor’s a little slippery from grease, there’s a funky smell about the place and the metal banister at the counter is a bit wobbly.
But the barbecue here is amazing.
You order from the purposefully surly kitchen – and don’t hang around they’re in a hurry – then collect your pickle options from the stand.
Once laden with your meat, you find a table and feast on huge chunks of superb burnt ends, sandwiches packed with tender sliced brisket and baby back ribs to die for.
The three sauce options are fun to try, though the original is the best. As for sides, the beans are dark and brooding though sweet and rich, and the potato casserole is truly excellent – like a mushed up cheesy potato bake.
Such an institution, Arthur Bryant’s is a must-visit in Kansas City. It’s down the road from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is also a priority for visitors. You’re also near the Boulevard Brewery that’s really worth a visit too.
Make sure you know what you’re doing before you come here. It’s good, but can be a bit confronting for a bar-b-q newbie.
A note on Joe’s Bar-B-Que
We heard again and again that going to Joe’s – formerly Oklahoma Joe’s – is a must, but we also heard that a 45-minute queue for food was normal. I love my barbecue as much as I love a local recommendation, but I hate queuing more. Sorry Joe. Maybe next time.
By the way, there are a few Joe’s Barbecue places in KC – the original venue that’s part of the gas station is apparently the best.